I got caught up in the hysteria. For most of the last month, the biggest and brightest food nerd blogs have been breathlessly reminding me that the McDonald’s McRib sandwich would be available again, for a limited time, from November 3rd through December 5th. The boneless sandwich with “rib” in its name, introduced in 1981, was never one of McDonald’s big hits; sales suffered, and the sandwich was officially “retired” in 1985. It returned several times in the 1990s, for promotional movie tie-ins, and on the regional level in barbecue-friendlier states. Rumors about the sandwich abounded each time it would reappear. Rumors that it was made of kangaroo meat. That it was only introduced seasonally, during the heady boom times of a pork surplus. But everyone could agree that it just wasn’t very good.
Then, something happened. McDonald’s very quietly did nothing to squash the whispers surrounding its sandwich. It allowed the McRib to be a mystery. It didn’t list its ingredients, the way it did with other products. It was very upfront about the fact that some people simply wouldn’t like it. And with each “limited time” reintroduction, the marketing got a little smarter. The last time it was “officially retired” in the late 90s, there was a “farewell tour” so that everyone could say goodbye. During the tour, McDonald’s also quietly launched their McRib.com website, a clumsy attempt at viral marketing masquerading as a petition to “save” the sandwich. And we all bought into it: authentic independent websites began springing up, like the McRib Locator, and before long, McDonald’s attempts to create a cult-like status for their product turned into an actual cult. Even Saveur magazine got excited about it, running a recipe for their decidedly more highbrow version of the McRib, which uses homemade barbecue sauce and braised pork belly.
[pullquote]The “rib” section, an ungodly chemical stew of robotically destroyed pig-parts, smoke-flavored, dyed with fake grill marks, and then, absurdly, molded with “rib” shapes on top, is chewy and satisfying, provided you are willing to accept its very existence.[/pullquote]
This year, the McRib was once again trotted out to much fanfare, and to introduce a month-long 5% profit boost for McDonald’s. After being whipped into a frenzy by all the attention it received, both from food bloggers and the mainstream media, I knew that it was time to try one, even though I have no fond memories of the sandwich from my childhood (I was, and continue to be, a strict 89 cent cheeseburger enthusiast).
It took me three tries to actually get a McRib. Each time, I would drive to the McDonald’s in South Portland, and as I sat in my car, waiting in drive-through lines at least a dozen cars deep, I managed to talk myself out of it. Why would I wait, on purpose, for bad barbecue? If I was accepting the calorie-and-fat dump, why wouldn’t I just get the #2 twin cheeseburger meal that has never failed me? How much did sitting in this line make me hate myself? And why should I eat a sandwich that I wasn’t even willing to get out of the car for?
Ultimately, it was fond memories of the sandwiches my friend Joel used to make for me during the Summer of 1994, that gave me the strength I needed to try a McRib. Joel had a Summer job at the Port Clyde General (now called “Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine® Port Clyde General Store™ and Kayak Emporium©”), and at least twice a week, I would hitchhike down from Tenants Harbor, where he would make me his homemade version of a McRib. It was a foot-long roll, piled with two segments of mass produced, machine-shaped, artificially flavored, ground face and snout “rib” sections, doused with barbecue sauce. He’d pile on about a pound of mozzarella cheese, wrap the whole thing in foil, and brown it in the oven for about 20 minutes. We referred to this concoction as a “ribbycue,” the words “Rib-B-Cue” slurred together into one sound, and often, he wouldn’t even charge me for it. Then, we’d go outside on his break and sit on the dock in the warm sun, wolf the sandwich down, smoke a thousand Marlboro reds, and figure out who was handling the driving duties for the next “Lesson in Hate” show in Belfast. It’s a good memory of a bad sandwich, and the idea that the McRib might somehow bring me back to those days was enough to convince me to try one.
At first glance, I was impressed by how much the sandwich actually looked like its picture. The only difference was that the actual sandwich is doused, nay, dipped in barbecue sauce. It’s also surprisingly huge; about the same dimensions as a chicken sandwich from Burger King. In fact, the bun owes a serious debt to Burger King’s starchy white oblong bun, with just a hint of a top crust, and a very light interior. The “rib” section, an ungodly chemical stew of robotically destroyed pig-parts, smoke-flavored, dyed with fake grill marks, and then, absurdly, molded with “rib” shapes on top, is chewy and satisfying, provided you are willing to accept its very existence. I would argue, though, that if you are willing to accept the Big Mac as a “hamburger,” it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to convince yourself that this is “pork.” The previously mentioned plentiful barbecue sauce gets everywhere, and is sharply sugary, sweet, and tangy. Bizarrely, there are then pickles, which again provide a nice contrast to all that smoke flavoring, and then, long slices of onion. This is uncharacteristic for McDonald’s, which usually favors those vats of rehydrated onion bits that they use on their hamburgers; these were long bits of real onion, which provided nice, distinct snap and flavor. The flavors combine into a whole sandwich that is mildly compelling, and ultimately pretty satisfying.
The real trick, here, is not that McDonald’s has managed to make a wildly profitable, edible sandwich that tastes vaguely like pork, uses gallons of syrupy barbecue sauce, and will make your fingers swell up after you eat it. It’s that they’ve put an incredibly long-term marketing plan in place that, in thirty years, managed to take a sandwich that nobody wanted in the 1980s, and turn it into a cult object that even food bloggers who know better, get excited to try. If you didn’t get to have one this time around, fear not. They’ll be back soon. It’s all a part of the plan.